About two years ago I created a post on Craigslist Shanghai. It explained that I was a teacher in the US, looking for another educator in China who was interested in having his/her students communicate in English with my high school students. I figured that either no one would respond or inappropriate offers would be made. In fact, there was only one response; Miss Yang, who was beginning her journey of teaching English and wondered if her students had the language skills to be able to communicate online. We emailed back and forth, discussing learning goals for our students. She wanted hers to concentrate on vocabulary, verb tenses, and that most intangible American vernacular. I wanted their American peers to gather information and insight on contemporary Chinese culture, social norms, and to feel a personal connection to a far off region that we would soon be traveling to visit.
Miss Yang and I knew that our resources were limited, but that internet access would not be a problem. The children in her successful high school came from wealthy homes with doting parents, I assured her that our kids would have much in common. We created a wiki where all of our students were to create a profile of themselves, sharing personal, but non-identifying information so that they could match up with an e-pal. What they chose to share was both interesting and mystifying to Miss Yang and me. The Chinese students posted many pictures of themselves and linked to their favorite movie and music stars but said very little about themselves, while several of the American students posted a great deal of information about their personal proclivities. OK, so their filters are different, I tried to explain reality television to Miss Yang, but I’m still not sure if I was clear in describing Big Brother.
Our students paired up and tackled their assigned topics of daily life, interests, family dynamics, etc. Like Miss Yang’s and my original correspondence, their emails began with the mundane and moved on to the sublime. Interestingly, the American students had to really work on using Standard English and various nuances of polite conversation. Miss Yang and I had been concerned with technology issues, Chinese governmental filters, and student interest. What we had not really considered were our own students’ filters or lack thereof.
When an American student awkwardly early into the relationship asked her epal, "are you a racist," her Chinese partner discussed Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, but not her reactions to the idea of bias. But how could she, growing up in a homogenous community, understand what her American partner was really asking? Additionally, since the Chinese government has blocked all information about Jackson’s criminal charges from their people, the American students decided it was not their place to explain why "Jacko" is no longer popular in the US. Several Chinese students asked about the United States Government’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Accords, none of the American students asked about the Accords had heard anything about them. Miss Yang and I had been so concerned with our discussions being thwarted by the PRC, or that our students would not comprehend each other’s terminology, but it was their interest in such different topics that slowed down and sometimes thwarted understanding.
Communicating in a shared and online space with students across the globe with very different passions and perspectives, did truly illustrate both how very interconnected and yes, flat, the world can be. Yet the different issues our students were focusing upon demonstrated both how similar the teenage experience is, and how very different. Some grew comfortable discussing NBA stats, but could not move to richer territory. The students’ own internal filters were stronger than the PRC’s. Perhaps as the world is made more interconnected and Chinese movie stars are visible here in the US and American TV is exported, the students will be able to share a common vernacular that will establish a foundation for more meaningful dialogue. For now, Miss Yang and I know that the technology makes it possible, but language and cultural barriers tended to kept the dialogue just on the surface. It would be lovely if this examination of an experiment in using free and readily accessible technologies ended with a banquet with all of the students meeting face to face, rejoicing in their shared commonalities; but that was not to be. My students and I were in Shanghai during spring exam time and our Chinese peers were unable to leave their studies, and quite frankly, the American students wanted to visit the night market instead.